The Sochi Olympics

BLOG #8, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE SOCHI OLYMPICS
February 19, 2014

Another Winter Olympics is almost history. And it will be sad to see it end. Sad because in all the world there is nothing like it. Oh there are so many stories to tell in such gatherings.

Yesterday, anchorwoman Meredith Viera was asked by Matt Lauer what impressed her most about this particular Olympics. Without missing a beat, she shot back: “The people.” “The Russian people.” She noted their deep unabashed pride in their nation, the evident pleasure it gave them to show visitors around or tell them about why their nation is special, unique.

During the last couple of weeks, a number of the pundits have pointed out another key variable in this particular Olympics. The opportunity to once again feel proud of their country. For the fall of the Berlin Wall dealt a terrible blow to Russians’ feelings of self-worth. We chuckle a little and say, “Get over it! You’re still the largest nation on earth.” But to them, it’s like large sections of their heart have been torn out. Just imagine if we had lost such a land-mass: Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Armenia (11,506 sq. m.), Azerbaijan (33,436 sq. m.), Belarus (80,154 sq. m.), Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Georgia (26,910 sq. m.), Kazakstan (1,049,150 sq. m.), Kyrgyzstan (76,640 sq. m.), Tajikistan (55,520,sq. m.), Turkmenistan (188,450 sq. m.), Uzbekistan (172,740 sq. m.), Ukraine (233, 100 sq. m.). Total 2,025,354 square miles. That’s the equivalent of two land masses the size of Argentina! Not counting the Eastern Europe satellites. No wonder that Vladimir Putin is trying hard to reestablish Russian pride as it was before 1991.

But back to Sochi and Winter Olympics. Watching both the national (think medal count) and individual stories play out, we’re seeing a continual interplay of triumph and tragedy, euphoria and heartbreak. Just one little misstep or stumble separating a gold medal from elimination. All the harder to take such a loss given the single-minded day by day effort, practice, and struggle necessary to even qualify to be an Olympian. And the more the media hype before the slip, the more devastating the fall.

Another reality is that the vast majority of participants have no illusions as to the odds of their making a podium. They train and come to an event such as Sochi for one reason: being a part of the greatest show on earth for two weeks. The camaraderie, the friendships, the experiences, the romances, the memories–all these are guaranteed to change their lives forever. And every two years of their lives, when a summer or winter Olympics rolls around, they vicariously live again the thrill of being part of the world’s largest and greatest tests of strength and skill.

And how could we possibly forget the stunning beauty of the magnificent snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, now limned in our memory banks forever.

As for we the viewers, we too are changed because we not only learn a great deal about the host nations, we too vicariously experience all the emotions, all the highs and lows, the Olympians do. Each of them becoming a part of us – for always.

FAIR PLAY – AND THE TOUR DE FRANCE PELOTON – PART TWO

    BLOG #30, SERIES #3
    WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
    FAIR PLAY
    AND THE TOUR DE FRANCE PELOTON
    PART TWO
    July 25, 2012

It is over for another year: the 99th to be exact (with so many crashes, only 153 of 198 made it to Paris).  And Connie and I are vicariously drained by the intensity of it.  Thanks to the continuing miracle of television we’re able to have ringside seats for the entire three weeks, and, in this year’s case, 2,500 some miles (the distance varies each year, depending on the route chosen; no two routes being the same).  Equivalent to racing bikes across the entire continental United States at full speed.  No wonder it is today ranked as the #1 yearly race in the world!

Fair play – that is the real subject of these two blogs.  Without this essential aspect of sport – or competition in general –, the event is a travesty, victories meaningless, and are not worth the time it takes to watch them.  Indeed, the subject of fair play represents the very core of my upcoming book with e-Christian Books: Showdown and Other Memorable Sport Stories for Boys.

Sadly, fair play is not as central to American sports as it used to be in generations past.  Instead, winning at any cost – even if it means maiming or incapacitating for life a member of an opposing team [think New Orleans Saints bounty scandal] more often than not appears to be in the ascendancy.

Needless to say, millions from all around the world watch each year’s Tour de France to see if race officials are still doing their best to maintain a level playing field.  Perhaps the most telling moment was when Peter Sagan, the electric new addition to the race from Slovakia, was sprinting for a stage win and the biker just ahead of him – I believe it was Goss – swerved just enough to block Sagan’s forward progress, race leaders penalized Goss by 30 points.

But the most telling moment (in terms of character) occurred during that horrendous day when some despicable person seeded a mountain road with tacks, causing some 43 riders to pull off with flat tires.  The defending champion (Cadel Evans of Australia) was sidelined by tacks three times!  At that time, Bradley Wiggins of the UK held a slight lead over Evans, so all he had to do was proceed at the same speed as before and then his main rival for glory in Paris would be conveniently eliminated.  But Wiggins would have nothing to do with profiting by his rival’s misfortune: in consultation with other team leaders he slowed down the pace of the entire peloton long enough for Evans and other bikers with flat tires to change bikes and catch up with the peloton.  It was a seminal moment.  The only comparable one being when Lance Armstrong’s arch rival, Jan Uhlrich of Germany, descending too fast on a mountain stage, careened off the road, Armstrong almost skidded to a stop in order to help Uhlrich get back up to the road and on his bike.  Never shall I forget the sight of Uhlrich (during the final laps of the Tour on the Champs Elysee in Paris) reaching out his hand to grasp that of the victor, Armstrong, in tribute to that incredibly generous act of graciousness.

But back to this year’s Tour: I couldn’t help but notice that, after the Evans incident, everyone (players and media alike) began treating Wiggins with deeper respect and admiration.  By that one act, Wiggins had achieved towering moral stature in the eyes of his fellow cyclists.  Other defining moments followed: ordinarily, when a given cyclist establishes dominance time-wise over his rivals in a race [and Wiggins dramatically proved twice that he was the race’s best time trialist by far] – especially if he leads a strong team –, he becomes boss of the Tour from there on, brooking no threats to his rule.  All breakaway riders are to be unceremoniously pulled back to the peloton by the end of each stage.  Armstrong was just such a clearly-in-control leader.  Wiggins, on the other hand, didn’t appear to feel his need to constantly remind his fellow riders who was boss.  If the breakaway riders were no threat to the final standings in Paris, he’d sometimes just let them have their moment of glory.  Even more significant, however, was a decision Wiggins made before the peloton entered Paris on the last day.  Ordinarily, the first of seven laps in Paris represents a supreme moment when the new king of the Tour flaunts his Yellow Jersey and team by grandly riding at the very front for the entire lap.  But not this year: George Hincapie (not a member of Wiggins’ Sky team), a veteran of 17 Tours, savoring the last one of his career on the Champs Elysee, was chosen by Wiggins to lead out.  Not only that, but on the very last lap, instead of merely basking in his own glory at the front of the peloton as is the norm with Yellow Jersey winners in Paris, Wiggins speeeded up so as to give his teammate, Mark Cavendish (“the fastest man on wheels”) a leg up in winning the sprint to the finish, thus becoming the stage winner.

For I have noticed in this all-too-short journey we call life, it is the “little” things we do or do not do that end up defining us for our contemporaries and for posterity.  In this particular instance, who knows what the impact for good, for instilling in the young a deeper sense of fair play and selflessness, of this one man’s choices, may turn out to be.

                                                                              BLOG #29, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
FAIR PLAY
AND THE TOUR DE FRANCE PELOTON
PART ONE
July 18, 2012

Every year at this time the Tour de France dominates our lives.  Not that we are unique in this respect, for in France over 15,000,000 people line 2,100 miles of roads, mainly in France but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain; and then there are the millions who watch it on television around the world.  Without question it is the greatest bicycle race on earth.

But keeping it so is anything but an easy task given that riders from every bicycle-loving-nation on earth try to make it into the ranks of one of the competing teams.  Together, all these fiercely competing teams make up what they call the peloton.  Each year my wife and I become more fascinated by this strange animal with its core engine of riders and its constant breakaway of riders determined to find fame outside the riders who are content with whatever glory comes to their individual teams.

Because so much is riding on winning something—be it being first to crest a hill, first to race across a finish line during a day’s stage (if not first, at least second or third), and most desirable of all: first to cross the line in Paris as the winner of the Yellow Jersey (or second or third)—there is almost unbelievable pressure on race officials to keep a lid on things, on the testosterone-driven 180-some riders who each harbors an agenda.

And then there are the inevitable crashes.  In this year’s Tour, far more than normal.  When the peloton is in motion with all those cyclists weaving in and out, moving forward and dropping back, all in the confines of narrow roads, crashes occur without a moment’s notice.  When they do, given their speed (20 to almost 60 mph), and paved road surface, the injuries are often bloody and serious, resulting in continual reductions of riders in the peloton.

With the peloton is a host of race officials, team leaders, media personnel (complete with helicopters overhead), and general support personnel, all further clogging up roads bordered by spectators.  It is a veritable zoo.

Each year’s peloton is a world unto itself, a miniature republic.  The ruler of that peloton is forced to prove his right to wear the coveted Yellow Jersey.  The winners early on are a different breed from the kings of the sport who lie low until the mountains.  Thus the winners of the relatively flat stages know that their reigns are likely to be brief.  The entire peloton knows this thus the early day-to-day winners have little power over their unruly cyclists.  But cyclists feverishly compete for momentary glory anyway, even knowing how ephemeral it is likely to be.

Always in the back of their minds are the dreaded time trials.  Dreaded because in them there is no longer any possibility that they can hide their true abilities from the peloton or the world, for each rider’s race time is individual.  At every stage of the time trials, speed so far will be measured against all the other finishers.  Almost inevitably, the leading time trialists will also excel in the mountains and fight it out for the podium in Paris.

And then there loom the mountains, with their serpentine roads and grades up to 20% on which the true separation between the titans and the lesser-mortals is graphically made evident.  But no matter how powerful a cyclist may be, unless he has an equally powerful team supporting him, his winning chances are nil.  Here it is that the smoothly operating phalanxes of superb and tireless mountain men come into their own, each man giving his physical all at leading out at the head of the peleton, with the others getting to coast behind in his slipstream.  Inevitably, however, the time will come when the future king of the race is forced to leave the slipstream and race for the top with the other would-be-kings.  These moments literally define each year’s Tour, and can be tremendously exciting to watch.

Now it is that the entire focus of the Tour is on these gladiators: who is it that has the greatness and staying power to dominate the mountains and rule over the rest of the race?  Sometimes the outcome remains in doubt until the very last day.  But then, be the margin between the leader and the closest competitor ten minutes or ten seconds, during the triumphal ride to Paris it is an unspoken rule that it would be unsportsmanlike to challenge the Yellow Jersey for supremacy in Paris.  Yet, even then a crash or accident of some sort could dethrone the ruler as could his failure to keep up with the peloton.

* * *

Next week, after the last week of this year’s tour, we’ll discuss more in depth the issue of what it takes to maintain a level playing field for all, as well as what real power may reside in those who wear the yellow jersey during the last half of each year’s Tour.